The Evolution of Music Videos – 1980s

In this latest series, we’re taking a look at the role visual effects have played in the evolution of music videos. We’re focusing on the ’80s for this first post, and will share our thoughts on the ’90s and ’00s in the upcoming weeks.


Music videos have only been “music videos” for a relatively short period of time. The genesis of the music video, as we know it today, began with promotional videos from the 1960s, consisting mainly of edited performance footage that was cut with additional b-roll.

As television shows featuring contemporary music increased in popularity, bands and producers were able to find new creative outlets by filming specialized performances, and occasionally adding some avant-garde material.

Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Bohemian Rhapsody bravely cracked open the unsullied shell that had cocooned music video potential up to this point. Set to Freddie Mercury’s “mock opera” sounds, bassist Brian May says the 1975 video was shot as a way for the band to minimize the amount of time they would have to lip-sync to the complex arrangement while appearing live on television. Little did director Bruce Gowers know that his promotional video was about to ignite a flame of artistic pursuit that would blaze throughout generations of audio/visual achievement.

Michael Jackson – “Thriller”

Less than a decade after “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a diminutive former boy band frontman known as Michael Jackson blew the collective music video fan-mind. Jackson’s 1983 “Thriller” video was a watershed moment, bridging the gap between the short film and the music video, and forever blurring that line. The thirteen-minute spectacle transformed the music video from a sometimes awkward screen filler into a sensational cog in the music industry machine.

Inspired by the visionary nature of Thriller, coupled with the digital tools pioneered by filmmakers and a dedicated channel called MTV, music videos in the ’80s quickly became a rich playground for aspirational and daring visual effects artists. This transformative decade brimmed with experimentation as artists found ways to combine their carefully honed skills using in-camera effects (matte paintings, miniatures, make-up, costume, stop motion animation) while adding digital enhancements (painting over video, CG objects, virtual backdrops, atmospheric effects and, eventually, particles).

A-ha – “Take On Me”

The Cars employed some promising digital techniques in their video for “You Might Think” (1984) thanks to Chrlx, while Lindsey Buckingham collaborated with notable editor and VFX pioneer David Yardley for his effects-enhanced video “Go Insane” (1985). But it was Norwegian synth-pop band A-ha and their release of “Take On Me” in 1986 that garnered a massive amount of critical acclaim for the innovative sketch technique used in their video. Michael Patterson and Candace Reckinger’s frame-by-frame drawings transformed a common love story/quest into a fantastical journey that involved a parallel world crossover. Months of rotoscoping and thousands of pages of pencil work ensured this piece would be one of the most expensive and impressive music videos of its time.

Dire Straits – “Money For Nothing”

That same year director Steve Barron, who worked on Michael Jackson’s mega hit video “Billie Jean” and A-ha’s “Take On Me,” was also behind the Dire Straits video “Money For Nothing” which featured blocky CG characters and frame-by-frame enhancements to footage of the band. By today’s standards the chunky figures appear laughably crude, but at the time the video first appeared the visual impact and techniques involved were quite stunning.

ZZ Top – “Rough Boy”

ZZ Top’s “Rough Boy” single, also from 1986, was accompanied by an impressive piece of VFX compositing. Suspended rectangular frames featured a scene within them that changed as the camera rotated behind it. A simple device that was well used to great effect.

Michael Jackson – “Leave Me Alone”

As the eighties matured, there was a rise in stop-motion and collage videos where bits and pieces of background, foreground and characters were cobbled together from obviously diverse sources and animated to form some surreal sense of place, space and time. VFX auteur Peter Gabriel applied this technique in his fantastic “Sledgehammer” video, and Paul Simon received notable acclaim for his use of the aesthetic in “The Boy In The Bubble.” But nobody came close to Michael Jackson’s 1989 “Leave Me Alone”, a sheer tour-de-force of animated photo-montage goodness. While it would be another 12 years before the animated newspaper photo would achieve near-perfection in the Harry Potter movies, Jacko’s VFX guy Jim Blashfield offered a damn good rendition as the ‘80s came to a close.

Up next – the 1990s!

Posted by: dceditors